A fleet of boats bobbed on the choppy blue-green waters of Hackberry Bay Tuesday, their passengers watching as machines scooped limestone from a barge into the water to form an artificial reef.

Then, a small charter plane flew overhead. 

Four years ago, celebrated angler, charter boat captain and conservationist Theophile Bourgeois III died when his seaplane crashed in Chandeleur Sound. The new reef south of Lafitte, part of a conservation effort to rebuild lost marine habitat, will bear his name.

About 1,400 tons of limestone will be spread across two to three acres on the bottom of the bay to form a reef and a habitat for oysters. Officials hope it will become the fishing hotspot it once was, drawing anglers from across the state to catch speckled trout, redfish and more.

Capt. Theophile Bourgeois

Capt. Theophile Bourgeois, pictured in 2015. (Photo by Todd Masson, NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune)

“Seeing his name — my name— on the sign and seeing this construction happening on this reef where I spent plenty of time fishing with my dad was this really wild full circle moment,” said Bourgeois’ son, Theophile Bourgeois IV, who watched with his family from one of the boats. 

Artificial reefs

Theophile’s Reef is about equidistant along Barataria Waterway between Lafitte and Grand Isle, said Rad Thrasher, executive vice president of development of the Coastal Conservation Association, and sits below about four feet of water.

A $300,000 project jointly funded by the Coastal Conservation Association’s Building Conservation Trust, Jefferson Parish and Shell with matching funds from the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries’ Artificial Reef Trust Fund, is the 46th of its kind in Louisianan waters.

“Artificial reefs like this benefit the entire ecosystem from bottom to top,” Thrasher said. “Oysters will attach to this reef, bait fish will come and other fish will come and for anglers it becomes a great fishing hole and a great attraction for a little town like Lafitte.”

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The late Theophile Bourgeois III's family and friends and government officials watched from boats as Theophile's Reef, an artificial reef made of limestone, was created. (Photo by Marie Fazio)

Anglers at the Jacob Meek Reef, which the CCA recently constructed 45 miles south of Terrebonne Bay, have already had success with snapper, Thrasher said.

“If history is any indication we’re going to have tons of fish out here pretty soon,” he said.

Jefferson Parish Council member Ricky Templet said Theophile’s Reef is one of the first post-Hurricane Ida projects to boost fishing in the region. 

“People forget that fishing in Louisiana is a big economic tool,” he said.

Theophile's legacy

Bourgeois, who founded Bourgeois Fishing Charters in 1992, flew groups to fish along the barrier islands, including Chandeleur and Gosier. He was also a noted conservationist, and patented an apparatus for retrieving oil booms in the aftermath of the 2010 BP oil spill.

Thrasher said Bourgeois had a personality “bigger than any room he walked into,” that was matched by his penchant for wearing neon yellow shirts and yellow crocs, Thrasher said.

In 2019, Bourgeois was flying two passengers in his Cessna 185 seaplane through rough weather when the plane crashed. The two passengers survived but Bourgeois died.

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Theophile Bourgeois IV and family members watch from a boat as a machine drops limestone into the water to create Theophile's Reef, an artificial reef meant to form oyster habitat. (Photo by Marie Fazio)

Lodge reopened

In 2001, Bourgeois bought the former Barataria Elementary, which hadn’t been used since the 1980s, and turned it into a lodge from which to run his commercial fishing business, his son said.

After his father died, Theophile Bourgeois IV sold his tattoo shop in New Orleans and took over the family business.

Then came COVID and a full shutdown of operations. Then Hurricane Zeta, which took out the back porch and the fall fishing season. Then Hurricane Ida, which flooded the building and filled it with mud and marsh grass. After months of cleanup work they began an elevation project that had been in the works since Hurricane Rita.

The lodge reopened its doors in March.

“I can't make the fish bite but I can control the experience my guests have and this place is unmatched,” Theophile Bourgeois IV said. “When you stay at the Hilton you don’t meet Hilton. This is me, my wife, my kids and a small group keeping this going. It’s very personal.”